After watching the Azzurri play Spain, what was needed was someone who could change the game in an instant. Once upon a time Serie A overflowed with that sort of player, the fantasista, the No 10 who thrilled fans domestically and internationally, capable of spotting the window of opportunity to unlock a back-line. Taking that into account and following on from FIFA’s own list of greatest No 10s in the game, I have made my own XI of purely Serie A fantasisti who could change a game in the blink of an eye.
Apart from Nils Liedholm, Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola, I have been fortunate enough to see them all and accordingly I believe these players match FIFA’s selection and more.
First off here is FIFA’s list: 1. Pele, 2. Diego Maradona, 3. Zinedine Zidane, 4. Ferenc Puskas, 5. Michel Platini, 6. Roberto Rivelino, 7. Lionel Messi, 8. Lothar Matthaus, 9. Roberto Baggio, 10. Gheorghe Hagi, 11. Mario Kempes.
And here is mine with the unforgettable Il Pibe de Oro first and the rest in no particular order.
Diego Maradona’s fantasy for Napoli between 1984 and 1991 inspired them to two remarkable Scudetti, two second place finishes and a UEFA Cup. The city’s living deity was absolutely unplayable in that time and could only be stopped by foul means. He grabbed Napoli and Argentina by the scruff of the neck and with the strength of his sheer willpower and sublime skills dragged them to the very forefront of European and world football.
Zinedine Zidane was one of Juve’s best ever players, winning two titles and an Intercontinental Cup while also leading them to the Champions League Final twice. According to legendary Real Madrid striker Alfredo Di Stefano, Zizou was “a walking spectacle who plays as if he had silk gloves on each foot.” And although he never actually wore the No 10 shirt with the Bianconeri, he was to all intents with his magic touch, fabulous balance, control and exquisite 360 roulette move, a real playmaker featuring in over 200 games.
Juve also had the most iconic of all fantasisti, the untouchable Roberto Baggio, who exuded an aura of effortless elegance. Although he was most successful with Juventus, he also played for Inter and Milan. Yet it was with Fiorentina between 1985 and 1990 that he felt at home and claimed he ‘bled purple’. His impeccable balance, control, flair for stunning rivals with his acceleration and change of speed saw him score 204 goals in 452 games.
The magical Alessandro Del Piero played over 700 games for Juventus while scoring 290 goals taking over Baggio’s No 10 shirt when his mentor left for Milan in 1995. With his beloved Bianconeri, Il Pinturicchio won the European Cup in 1996 and ‘eight’ Scudetti. Meanwhile, his magic feet, brilliant poise and superb extra-time goal in the semi-final against Germany helped the Azzurri win his most treasured triumph, the 2006 World Cup.
Francesco Totti became Giallorossi captain early in his career in 1998 and won his first Scudetto in 2001. The following year he took over the Azzurro No 10 shirt from Del Piero who volunteered it, claiming “only the best player should wear it.” In 2004 Maradona added “Totti knows how to make the team play well and more than Zidane is the best player in the world.” Currently Totti is Serie A’s second all-time scorer with 232 goals and still one of its best players.
Giancarlo Antognoni was the all-time Fiorentina bandiera and the symbol of a winner. Other clubs may have had winning teams, but Viola fans had Antognoni, the eternal illusion of a winning future. The fans’ chorus of: “Voi vincete lo Scudetto, ma noi abbiamo Antognoni” - you may win the title but we have Antognoni - was completely unanswerable. With the Azzurri Antognoni won 73 caps and as a classical ‘regista’ his cohesion and quality led the team right up to that legendary 1982 Final.
Ruud Gullit was another of Serie A’s complete players of the 1980s. Arriving in Milan in 1987, ‘The Black Tulip’ was utterly mesmerising and adept in almost every role. His fantastic athleticism, exceptional steadiness, elegance and poise had a massive impact on the Milan dream team of that era helping them win three titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups.
Michel Platini moved to Juventus in 1982 and his partnership with players like Paolo Rossi inspired Juve to two League titles and two European Cup Finals. His sublime passing was an art in itself and apart from his playmaking duties he was also a potent goalscorer, winning the Capocannoniere award three times.
La Grande Inter of the 1960s was blessed with the visionary Sandro Mazzola, who sat in front of the fabulous Luis Suarez, influencing every aspect of the game. The son of the legendary Valentino, he helped Inter win four titles, two Intercontinental Cups and two European Cups. His finest hour came in the 3-1 defeat of the mighty Real Madrid in 1964’s European Cup Final when he scored twice.
Gianni Rivera was a superlative creative midfielder who could also score. Seen as one of Italy’s greatest players, the Golden Boy’s inventiveness, immaculate dribbling and distribution helped Milan win every available honour, while he won several prestigious awards himself. Equally at home as a deep lying playmaker or up front in his highly individual, free roaming role.
Nils Liedholm along with fellow Swedes Gunnar Gren and Gunnar Nordahl - Gre-No-Li - led Milan to four titles in the 1950s. Liedholm was the assists-master who contributed massively to Nordahl’s club-record 225 League goals. For over a decade almost everything revolved around his playmaking vision and passing accuracy. Legend has it that it was two years before he misplaced his first pass in front of home fans and that it was greeted with a standing ovation out of sheer shock.